A String Quartet as Family Affair And Showcase for Czech Masters

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Author: Bernard Holland
Date: July 23, 2004
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Brief article
Length: 368 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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The Vlach Quartet Prague brought music from home to the Frick Collection on Tuesday. The group is led by Jana Vlachova, daughter of Josef Vlach, who founded the original Vlach Quartet after World War II and who died in 1988.

Family ties, as well as national ones ran through this program of Suk, Schulhoff, Janacek and Dvorak. Josef Suk, a national treasure in Czech culture, was Dvorak's star pupil and later a busy violinist and appealing composer. His reverent, hymnlike ''Meditation on an Old Bohemian Carol'' carried to a final phase Central Europe's liberation from the heavy hand of German formalism: a revolution that found powerful instigators in Dvorak and Smetana.

Janacek's ''Kreutzer Sonata'' Quartet from 1923 leaves revolution behind it, and already occupies a world of fantasy and rhetoric unlike any music written by anybody before or since. Dvorak's quartet in G from 1895 ended the evening by bending, stretching and compacting inherited formal designs to suit the impulses of the moment. Dvorak's four movements make sense, but in their own way.

Ervin Schulhoff, who died at a German concentration camp in 1942, has received much notice in the last few years. Done here were his Five Pieces for String Quartet, dance movements that describe Schulhoff as a talented listener. Recreated in sophisticated terms are the important tendencies of music being created around him in the first quarter of the 20th century, from Stravinsky's energetic unevenness to Bartok's folk-music explorations and controlled barbarity. Schulhoff the faithful recorder seems more present in these pieces than Schulhoff the original voice.

Listening to the Vlach Quartet Prague, with its dark, deep and densely colored tone, is to question whether these players might sound different in different repertory. I doubt it. Certainly these are good string players viscerally attached to a shared culture. Every note had been considered and every note passionately attacked.

But delicacy is not one of this quartet's assets, nor seemingly an aspiration. The near-impenetrable heaviness that made Suk such a pleasure left Janacek's lightness of being gasping for air. We outsiders should listen carefully to present-day musicians of another culture playing the music of their fathers and grandfathers, but we don't necessarily have to buy the results.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A119639114